Archive for the 'Self-Editing' Category

May 02 2011

How to Become a Super Self-Editor

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Every writer needs beta-readers and every author needs editors, but YOU are the first line of defense when it comes to content and quality control. If anyone knows your writing intimately, the verbal tics and words you lean on too often, the character traits and archetypes you put into your work, it’s you.

That’s both quasi-tragic and wonderful.

It’s quasi-tragic because you’re an expert in your own writing and can’t see your own flaws.

It’s wonderful for the same reason. If you can step back and brutalize your own writing, your finished manuscripts will have a sense of polish. It’s hard–the story and characters are your babies and you’ll do anything to keep them from harm–but necessary.

So let’s bring out your inner self-editor.

Put it aside, no matter how long it takes. The best time to self-edit is several days after you’ve finished a project. Maybe you need several weeks or a month, but you must mentally separate yourself from the story. When you do this, you’ll spot grammatical errors, inelegant language, poor plotting, repeated words, and hit-you-in-the-face foreshadowing lacking in subtlety.

Just print it, baby! The “green” among us will hate this one. Print out a physical copy of your work to catch your mistakes. It’s too easy to gloss over problems on a computer screen. If the idea strikes you as environmentally unfriendly, try reading your work on a device other than your computer…something like a smartphone or e-reader. Changing up the reading format helps you read your work with fresh eyes.

Activate the T-800 Adverb-inator. Writers and editors are embroiled in an all-out War on Adverbs. Unleash the T-800 Adverb-inator. In many cases, you can eliminate adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs. Whenever a sentence starts to rhyme from all the “-ly” words in it, you need to pare it down. The less often you use adverbs, the more impact the ones you do use will have. If you’re using Word, employ the “Find and Replace” feature and search “ly.” The results will amaze you.

“That” doesn’t always fly. The word “that” has many uses. The fish was that big. The horse that won the race is from champion stock. That movie was great. In many cases, “that” can go. Some sentences need it for flow or clarification purposes…and if it feels right to use “that,” by all means do it. However, you can trim it most of the time.

Comma comma down dooby doo down down… Breaking up is hard to do, but using commas correctly can prove even more challenging. Nothing is worse than the meandering, paragraph-long sentence that’s really several sentences strung together with commas. In most cases, shorter, punchier sentences are easier to follow.

Theme show. Not every story starts with some grandiose, life-changing theme. Like it or not, your story has some theme or purpose tied to it, even if it’s not explicitly stated. Make sure to identify the theme, no matter how elusive it may be.

“Be” aware. Action verbs, action verbs, action verbs! The verbs of “be” are flexible and familiar. They work well with adverbs, but limit your arsenal. Action verbs engage readers and turn so-so prose into memorable writing.

Get some perspective…and stick with it. When working with a first-person narrative, watch out for writing stating what another character is thinking. In third-person writing, look for any jarring changes in perspective, especially in stories with multiple points of view. A scene starting from a certain character’s perspective should never deviate from that perspective.

What’s the consistency? Character traits and motivations should not inexplicably vary from scene to scene or page to page. Think about it like this: Your very best friends usually won’t surprise you with their behavior. You know them well enough to predict what they’ll say or how they’ll react. Characters should be like your very best friends. When they do something inconsistent with their personalities, you should identify it with laser-like precision.

Read it. Out loud. People may look at you funny, your significant other may tell you to shut up, and you may feel uncomfortable. However, this is the best way to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of your words. Read the whole thing aloud…you’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you’ll pick up. Your brain won’t “fill in the blanks” when you read aloud, allowing you to find missing words, awkward structuring, etc.

End it, already. Writing an effective ending is one of the hardest things to do. A good self-editor feels the pace of the story and understands when it reaches its conclusion. Writers easily succumb to pitfalls like false endings, unnecessary epilogues, and thematic diversions. Understand the exact moment when the proverbial credits should roll.

Self-editing is only part of the revision process. You always need to have someone with a critical eye look over your work. And if you do know an experienced editor, make friends!

Matt Adams is a TV news producer whose short stories have appeared in A Thousand Faces, Wily Writers for Speculative Fiction, and anthologies from Library of the Living Dead Press.  He lives and works in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife and man-eating frog. You can check out more of his work at

12 responses so far

Mar 18 2009

Beat a Professional Proofreader!

Hello.  I have an exciting new game for the grammatically inclined.  Compete with B. Mac in a proofreading contest.  Those that can score 80% as many points as BM will be eligible for a volunteer moderator position.  Those that score more points than B. Mac will also receive a free Superhero Nation t-shirt.  (I’m judging the contest, but I’ll be fair).  If you’d like to compete, please download the following document and email your completed version to superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.  The contest ends on March 27!

68 responses so far

Apr 02 2008

Site Update: Review of SIWBI

I have overhauled my review of Soon I Will Be Invincible. I cut its length by about a quarter (from 2750 to about 2000 words). It is now down to a hair over 2000 words (instead of ~2750) and Davis was kind enough to reformat it for me.

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Mar 14 2008

Learning to Write by Retyping

A writing professor at my university suggested that one way to study written rhythm and cadences is to type out someone else’s novel. He says that doing so will help you gain a better sense of style and flow. Maybe. I think you can do better with this technique, though. Instead of retyping someone else’s work, try retyping yours. I think that this will help the aspiring novelist uncover several tricky problems.

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Jul 22 2006

Style Checklist

1) Try not to begin sentences with the words there, it, so, and then.

A. There and it create passive sentences. For example, “there are only three cities with many supervillains” can be rewritten as “only three cities have many supervillains.”

B. So usually connects an action awkwardly to a previous statement, like “I hate Italian food, so I’m not a fan of lasagna.” Phrases that begin with so are often obvious and unneeded.

C. Then is problematic when it indicates that a string of actions is continuing. “I went to the door and then I knocked.” Usually, then suggests that the action is individually insignificant. Sentences with then frequently feel like laundry lists of actions that don’t need to be spelled out. “I hit the up button. Then the elevator came. Then I stepped inside and got out on the ninth floor” could be revised to “I took the elevator to the ninth floor.” Unless something interesting happens on the elevator, there’s no reason to draw it out.

2) Passive voice lacks punch and verve. Is passive voice in your piece? Does your piece use passive voice?

3) Have you weeded out unnecessary and unproductive sentences and phrases? Writers don’t stumble upon coherent, compact stories any more than a sculptor accidentally turns a stone into a face. Good writing relies on editing and deletion as much as creation/addition. If a scene, chapter or character adds little to the work as a whole, you’ve got to have the guts to remove or revise it.

A. One common objection is “but I’ve already got 60,000 words! If I cut anything, I won’t have a manuscript long enough to submit.” OK, but if you don’t cut anything, you probably won’t have a manuscript good enough to get accepted anywhere. Wise editing and deletion will increase the publishability of the whole.

B. How does one edit wisely? Well, here are some suggestions. List your chapters and then write a 1-2 sentence synopsis of your book’s plot. Which chapters are tangential to your synopsis? For example, Harry Potter’s Quidditch scenes are useful and enjoyable, but not really related to the main plot. Compared to the rest of the book, how long are your tangential chapters? As a rule, tangents shouldn’t make up more than 10-15% of the book.

C. Deleting scenes and chapters can be emotionally hard. Instead of deleting them, try cutting and pasting them into a separate file. In a few days, if you feel that you really need that scene, then you can retrieve it.

D) Talk to your reviewers. Ask them to nominate scenes that could be reduced. Did they ever use phrases like “this dragged on”?

4) There are many stylistic tics that may cause readers to stumble.  Get out a set of markers and print out a copy of your work. Circle each of the following tics in a different color.

A) Modifiers (a lot, almost, very, extremely, roughly, approximately, quite, nearly, a bit, etc.)

B) Sentences that begin with nouns

C) Words that have 5+ syllables

D) Sentences that have 15+ words

E) Sentences that have 4+ commas and/or semi-colons

F) Sentences that have 3+ clauses

G) Lines of dialogue that are not attributed to a speaker

H) Capitalized words that are not the first word of the sentence. (Why might this be problematic? According to the article “Revision Checklist” by B. Mac and Jacob Mallow, 9 out of 10 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors of America agree that Over-Capitalization Syndrome can be visually disorientating).

I) Fragmented or grammatically incorrect sentences.

J) Paragraphs with 150+ words

K) Italicized words

It’s not a problem that you will have many circles on your page for some of these categories.  There’s nothing wrong with an occasional long sentence, for example.  But when each page has 10-15 long sentences, that might rub readers the wrong way.  Circling each of these items helps you get in the reader’s mindset.

4 responses so far